Flutist Bill McBirnie joins forces with pianist Bill Gilliam and electroacoustic musician Eugene Martynec for the stunning ten track release Outside the Maze. The improvisational nature of these compositions sets them apart from standard instrumental fare. However, the quality that most separates Outside the Maze’s songs from the norm is the once in a lifetime idiosyncratic chemistry and energy. No three other musicians can conspire to collaborate in such a way and achieve similar results. This is despite a relatively unusual instrumental configuration and the instrumental nature of the songs. Therese are not musicians unveiling backing tracks searching in vain for a singer. The ten songs included on Outside the Maze are richly layered works of musical art capable of standing on their own.
It is scarcely more apparent that’s the case than it is with the album’s title song. A superficial listen may lead some to deem the performance a hodgepodge of barely formed musical ideas but, upon closer listening, the hallmarks of sharp compositional instincts emerge. The trio follows their respective Muses wherever they made lead, no one player taking command for long. What emerges, instead, is a strong sense of group effort. This is a trio playing as an unit, exploring uncharted avenues together, and consciously tailoring their musical responses to each other’s strengths.
The second song “Warping Asteroids” is much shorter than its predecessor. McBirnie and Gllliam share the driver’s seat initially, but Martynec is ever present. His presence is crucial at key points during the performance. There are moments during the song where a classic call and response emerges from the improvisation, but with a spontaneous twist in this case. The call and response motif re-emerges during the album’s third song “Phosphene Delight” and the playing reflects the implied playfulness lurking behind the song’s title. It is the album’s shortest track, barely cracking the two and a half minute mark.
“Cicada Musings” does an excellent job capturing the slightly alien experiences of dealing with nature’s occasional usurper. The atmospheric spell that the trio achieves leaves a lot of suggestive open space in the song, but its composition nonetheless holds together. “El Gato & The Mouse” underlines a quality of the collection that listeners may miss amid all of the envelope pushing. These are playful performances obviously driven by the sheer joy the trio experiences working together and few tracks emphasize this more.
The finale “Time of Walking Slowly” has a much more serious intent. It is a meditative piece that the musicians slowly develop, and Gilliam’s piano playing is especially important to the final result. It washes over listeners in swells of sound, ebbing and flowing, while always retaining its initial mood. It is as fine of an ending for Outside the Maze as the players could ask for. Outside the Maze is a challenging listen; anyone looking for verse, chorus, verse, bridge will be disappointed. Those who persist, however, enjoy rewards you seldom find on any instrumental release. Bill Gilliam, Eugene Martynec, and Bill McBirnie hit a higher creative zenith than ever before with this collection.